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Understanding the difference between an injury and pain

Whether you’re a novice runner or a seasoned veteran, chances are you’re well acquainted with pain. Right from the get-go we’re taught to run through the pain to push through it to get to that next PB. When you’re new to running long distances it’s normal for your body to take some time to adjust and being a regular runner is all about dealing with those niggling aches and pains. My right knee certainly lets me know all about it for a few days if I run too many stairs between Manly and Dee Why.

But how much pain does it take to gain and when does pain point to an injury? While pain and injuries go hand in hand, pain doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got an injury and there are plenty of injuries that sneak by without causing pain where you’d expect it. Minor running “injuries” can be treated with a bit of good old fashioned R’n’R but more chronic or serious injuries require the expert guidance of a musculoskeletal physiotherapist.

Assessing pain: am I sore, or am I injured?

Before you can get to the treatment stage for those aches and pains, we’ve got to work out what we’re dealing with. At an initial consultation with a physio they will usually ask you a number of questions regarding your pain/injury to get a better idea of its causes and how best to treat it.

  1. Did the pain start abruptly or come on over time?

It is normal for your body to feel sore after a big run or a workout; delayed muscles soreness (DOMS) is a common occurrence and normally improves after a few days, whereas an injury will likely cause you pain for weeks or more at a time. If you heard a pop or snap and felt a twinge or an abrupt sensation of pain during your run, chances are you have suffered an injury. Around 70% of all running injuries are caused due to overuse, but they often show themselves in a straw breaking the camel’s back fashion.

  1. Is the pain persistent or does it only come on during certain activities?

Unfortunately, what your pain is trying to tell you isn’t always clear cut and chronic or persistent pain is notoriously difficult to pinpoint and treat. That being said, when muscle or joint soreness hangs around for longer than a few days, is accompanied by sharp pains or aches and is persistent even when not engaging in a physical activity it’s likely you’ve done yourself an injury.

  1. Is the area swollen, sore to the touch or bruised?

When you tear a ligament or cause substantial soft tissue damage, the body usually (not always) reacts by causing some pretty obvious external symptoms. It may not happen immediately, but swelling and bruising commonly accompany major injuries and can be more easily diagnosed by comparing one side to the other and checking for differences.

  1. Is there a loss of function?

Loss of function tests are one of the most common methods musculoskeletal physiotherapists use to identify the nature of pain. One of the biggest indicators of an injury as opposed to regular pain is the presence of a loss of function independent of any sensation of pain or an inability to complete certain movements due to severe pain.

Preparation is the first step to avoiding a running injury

  • See a physio to identify potential musculoskeletal and health problems that may contribute to injury
  • Always warm up and cool down by jogging slowly
  • Injured runners should consult a professional about how to prevent re-injuries
  • Hydrate prior to running and consider taking water on longer runs
  • Get a running assessment if niggles persist

Use the R.I.C.E method to treat running soreness

If you’re suffering from the DOMS or you’ve just pushed yourself a little hard and feeling it, you can’t go wrong erring on the side of caution and giving your body a bit of a recovery pamper session.

Rest properly and resist the temptation to down a number of celebratory alcoholic beverages. If you must go out, keep hydrating, don’t party too hard and let your body recover.

Ice – this will help constrict the blood flow to sore areas and help to reduce inflammation and soreness. If you feel up to it, you can always take your second ice bath as you likely already took your first one during the race.

Compression of the legs and arms will help flush out the lactic acid that has accumulated. Wearing compression gear will work great for this. Pairing compression and icing will ensure they work symbiotically and will shorten your recovery period.

Elevate your legs as you lie in bed thinking about how awesome and tough you looked covered in mud, running through electroshock stations, carrying logs and kicking butt.

If you have a persistent ache or pain whether it be the result of running or another physical activity, it needs to be identified and addressed. Nobody likes being injured, but allowing something as simple as shin splints to go untreated with continued overtraining, can cause tibial stress fractures, which will put you on your butt for at least 6 weeks. The moral of the story is from little things, big things grow; this includes injuries.

Visit a pain and injury clinic on the Northern Beaches for more information on identifying the difference between pain and injury and how to treat those niggling aches and pains before they progress to something more serious.

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